A little Madison in the U.S. Virgin Islands
The Terrace Restaurant on St. John
Anyone who has read Herman Wouk’s novel “Don’t Stop the Carnival” knows the allure of bailing out of a dull existence in a cold weather climate and following the sun to an island paradise.
In the Wouk novel, it’s a New York press agent who takes the plunge, buying a resort hotel in the Caribbean. Calamity ensues.
When I spoke to Erica Miner last week, I neglected to ask if she’d read the Wouk novel prior to embarking on her own Caribbean adventure. If so, it clearly didn’t deter her.
And although she and her husband, Madison native Robin Miner, endured a major calamity — Hurricane Irma — last September, their restaurant is open and their love for St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is undiminished.
The restaurant is called The Terrace, and among its features are two special edition Caribbean-blue “Sunburst” chairs made famous on the Terrace of the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“We get a lot of people who come down and say they’ve heard there’s a Madison restaurant here,” Miner says.
That’s often followed by, “You have Terrace chairs!”
“Our staff wonders why people want to have their pictures taken with the chairs,” Miner says.
Miner worked on the Union Terrace — “slinging brats and beer” — while at UW-Madison, but her real restaurant experience was at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry.
She’s originally from Ann Arbor and came to Madison for school in 1996.
“I worked at Dotty’s all through college,” Miner says, and counts herself close to the restaurants owners, Jeff Stanley and his daughter Rachael.
After attending culinary school in Chicago, Miner returned to Madison and helped Dotty’s move from Fairchild Street to its current Frances Street location, where she served as kitchen manager.
“After about a year in the new location,” Miner says, “I decided it was time for a change. I wanted to go somewhere warm. Being a cook — trying to be a chef — the possibilities are endless. There are restaurants everywhere.”
It was 2004. She and Robin were dating and he was up for an adventure, too. They chose St. John. Friends had touted it. On arrival they worked restaurant jobs, eventually married, and in 2010 had a son, Elijah.
A couple of years later, Erica visited Robin while he was bartending at a restaurant called Banana Deck on the waterfront in Cruz Bay. Next door was a lovely property that had most recently been a Mexican restaurant, then a steakhouse. Neither had succeeded.
“The landlord just put up a ‘For Lease’ sign,” Robin recalls saying. “Do you want to go take a look?”
“Why? Erica responded.
“Don’t you want your own restaurant?” They walked next door.
“We walked in,” Miner says, “and a lightbulb went on. We knew it was going to be our place.”
When it was first built, the property had housed a restaurant called The Stone Terrace. Longtime residents still called it that in 2012, when the Miners first leased it. Thinking of a name for the French-influenced fine dining spot they envisioned, they settled on The Terrace.
“It had two meanings for us,” Miner says. “The Madison connection, and it spoke to the identity of the building as well.”
Robin’s parents had bought the couple the special edition Memorial Union Terrace chairs several years earlier and held them for safekeeping in Madison. When Robin and Erica opened The Terrace restaurant, Robin’s parents shipped them the chairs.
They generally close for a month in late summer — hurricane season. The couple was visiting Erica’s sister in North Carolina in early September last year when Irma hit the Virgin Islands.
Erica and Elijah came up to Madison to stay with Robin’s parents; Robin went back to St. John to assess the damage and help in the recovery.
The restaurant was without power for 61 days. Robin was able to get the generator running and save The Terrace’s expensive cellar full of wine and freezers worth of food. Physical damage to the restaurant was not extensive — they lost several awnings — but the house they were living in lost its roof.
Robin came up to Madison and brought Erica and Elijah back in early December. They had the restaurant open before Christmas.
“The island is recovering wonderfully,” Miner says, while acknowledging there is more to be done. “The attitude of most of the locals is really positive, strong and resilient.”
And, yes, the chairs are fine.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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